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High Tech Tries to Lift Veil on 18 1/2 Tantalizing Minutes

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High Tech Tries to Lift Veil on 18 ½ Tantalizing Minutes in Watergate

The New York Times

November 22, 2009

By Sam Roberts

Stymied in its digital effort to fill in the mysterious 18 ½-minute gap in the Watergate tapes, the government will apply high technology to the paper trail to try to answer the scandal’s most intriguing question: What did President Richard M. Nixon know, and when did he know it?

The National Archives and Records Administration said Wednesday that it was convening a team of forensic document examiners to study two pages of handwritten notes taken by H. R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, during a meeting between them on June 20, 1972, at the Old Executive Office Building, next to the White House. Eighteen and a half minutes of conversation were erased from the tape of that meeting before it and other Watergate tapes were surrendered by Nixon to a special prosecutor.

Haldeman’s notes, preserved at the National Archives, are believed to be the only existing record of the meeting, which occurred three days after Nixon campaign operatives were arrested for breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, at the Watergate office complex in Washington.

The forensic team will try to determine, among other things, whether any additional notes were taken by Haldeman or anyone else at the meeting, and whether the two pages were doctored to remove or add notes afterward, presumably in an effort to protect the president. The ink and paper will be subjected to tests to detect variations in light invisible to the naked eye and to find any indentations from writing on other pages. The tests can also determine whether carbon copies were made.

The tests will be conducted by the preservation research and testing division of the Library of Congress and by forensic investigators from the Treasury inspector general for tax administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The results are expected to be available early next year.

In 2003, the National Archives said it had given up trying to retrieve the missing conversation from the tape itself, which, like Haldeman’s notes, is preserved in a climate-controlled vault. Experts appointed in 1973 by a federal judge, John J. Sirica, concluded that the conversation had been deliberately erased.

On the audible portion of the tape, Nixon says of the Democratic headquarters, “My God, the committee isn’t worth bugging, in my opinion. That’s my public line” — suggesting, perhaps, that his private line differed.

In his 1978 memoir, Haldeman wrote that he could not remember details of the conversation. But his diaries, published soon after his death in 1993, suggest that he and Nixon may have plotted to impede the F.B.I.’s inquiry into the break-in.

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